Why Right-Wingers (and Media Hacks) Are Totally Wrong About What Americans Believe -- We're Becoming Less, Not More, Conservative
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Despite some misguided triumphalism on the Right, America is not getting more conservative. In fact, if you look at lots of public opinion polls, you'll find that just the opposite is true—Americans' views on the most pressing issues of the day are actually solidly progressive, with strong support for the social safety net and growing support for once-controversial social issues like marriage equality.
Nevertheless right-wing and center-contrarian media outlets love to jump on polls that identify Americans as conservative, without ever asking what the difference is between what your average Ohioan means by that word and what Marco Rubio means when he announces at CPAC that “the majority of Americans are conservatives.”
(Rubio's inaccurate comments sparked a controversy and prompted a vehement reaction from Rachel Maddow this week, as Politifact debunked his statement—but then rated it “mostly true” anyway, proving the pervasiveness of the myth of conservative America.)
An article by the Atlantic's Richard Florida titled, “ Why America Keeps Getting More Conservative,” is an excellent example of the problem of relying on nebulously defined, self-identified “conservatism” as a measure of ideology. Florida cites new Gallup poll numbers (the same ones Rubio and Politifact cited) that the polling outlet itself said provided little evidence that America is “track[ing] right.” Gallup offered the far more innocuous headline, “Mississippi Most Conservative State, D.C. Most Liberal,” with the subhead: “State patterns in ideology largely stable compared with previous years.”
But “nothing has changed” doesn't make a good headline, and so Florida hooked an entire story on a false premise that belies the conclusions drawn by the pollsters he cites. Gallup goes on to point out, “Unlike political party identification, which has shifted significantly over the last four years, the state-by-state patterns in ideology have remained remarkably stable this year compared with previous years.”
And Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly noted:
If you look at the Gallup data on which Florida’s entire “analysis” (mainly just a charting of ideological self-identification by state) rests, it certainly doesn’t show any dramatic recent rightward trend. The percentage of Americans self-identifying as “conservative” since 1992 has varied from a low of 36% to a high of 40% (a high it reached in 2004, before dropping to 37% in 2008). As it happens, the percentage of Americans (again, according to Gallup) self-identifying as “liberal” has also gone up 4% since 1992 (from 17% to 21%). The percentage self-identifying as “moderates” has, accordingly, drifted down from 43% in 1992 to 35% in 2011, though the number was only two points higher in 2007 and 2008.
So this is a non-story given a clickworthy headline. Yet the willingness of writers and editors to greenlight stories on the myth of “conservative” or “center-right” America – and the willingness of supposed fact-checkers to support the idea – shows that this is a myth with incredible staying power in the American imagination. Why is that?
What Is a “Conservative,” Anyway?
When politicians speak to the Conservative Political Action Conference, as AlterNet's Adele Stan reported this week, they consider “conservatism” to be rigid opposition to abortion (and this year we're throwing birth control into that category as well), a deep aversion to taxes (for the rich, anyway) and a hatred of immigrants. Some years conservatism also includes a willingness to bomb whichever majority-Muslim country looked at us funny. If Rick Santorum is right, conservatives think the more energy they waste, the better they are, and if Newt Gingrich is to be believed, there's nothing they hate more than unemployment insurance.
But when Americans tell a pollster how they identify, most of them show their true colors, and it's not a deep red. As Paul Waldman of Media Matters for America noted back in 2008, “People who know a lot about politics -- like journalists -- assume that ordinary people have the same interpretation of those terms as political junkies have. But the truth, as nearly a half-century of political science research has made clear, is that a significant portion of the public has little or no idea of what these terms mean in the political world. A third of the public can't even tell you which of the two major parties is the 'conservative' one."